Despite the relative success of such later features as "Secrets and Lies" and "Topsy Turvy," Mike Leigh's 1990 "Life Is Sweet" — the film that first got him noticed internationally — has apparently never been released on disc in the U.S. until now. Criterion has just put out DVD and Blu-ray editions, both from a new transfer and sharing the same extras.
Leigh's working technique is unusual and close to unique: He and his actors start with character ideas and meet together for months to organically build the rest outward until they have a locked-down shooting script. It is ironic, then, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to prefer nominating Leigh for writing (five times) rather than directing (two times).
"Life Is Sweet" is a little slice of life — half comedy, half drama — about a British working-class family (Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman, Jane Horrocks, Claire Skinner) and their friends (David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Stephen Rea). The family members are all either practical or dreamers, except for Horrocks' character, a purging anorexic who is bitterly stuck in a rut.
Leigh's earlier films were not known for visual appeal. "Life Is Sweet" seems more carefully shot, and the Blu-ray looks at least as good as the print that played in L.A. during the initial release. There are few extras, but they're good ones. There is an hour-long audio recording of a Leigh Q&A at London's National Film Theater back in 1991. Also included are five five-minute shorts that Leigh made in 1975 as a sort of abortive TV pilot. (One of them includes a surprisingly trim young Richard Griffiths.)
The prize, though, is Leigh's thoroughly intelligent commentary track, recorded this year for Criterion. Another bonus is the inclusion of English subtitles for the hearing-impaired, which will be welcomed even by the hearing-unimpaired: It's nice to have a "translation" of those moments when, for American viewers, the regional accents are incomprehensible.
"Life Is Sweet" (Criterion, Blu-ray, $39.95; DVD, $29.95)
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).